Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Most critics agree that Top Girls is an intricate play; generally, they find much to praise in its themes, attitudes, and text. The play's depiction of women and feminism is particularly interesting to critics. Writing about the original London production, Bryan Robertson of The Spectator argued, "her play is brilliantly conceived with considerable wit to illuminate the underlying deep human seriousness of her theme. The play is feminist, all right, but it is an entertaining, sometimes painful and often funny play and not a mere tract." Expanding on this idea, Benedict Nightingale of the New Statesman wrote, "What use is female emancipation, Churchill asks, if it transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, weak and helpless? Does freedom, and feminism, consist of aggressively adopting the very values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?"

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Writing about the same production, John Russell Taylor of Plays & Players is one of several critics over the years who believed that the rest of Top Girls did not live up to the promise of the dinner party scene. He found the play disjointed, arguing that "the pieces in the puzzle remain determinedly separate, never quite adding up to more than, well, so many fascinating pieces in a fascinating puzzle."

When Top Girls opened in the United States a short time later, a few critics were dismissive of the play and Churchill's potential appeal to American audiences. Calling the play "confused," Douglas Watt of the Daily News proclaimed, "Churchill can write touchingly and with a good ear for everyday speech about middle-class Londoners today. But while concern for ugly ducklings may be universal … Top Girls is a genre piece likely to arouse even less interest here than Alan Ayckbourn's equally tricky, but infinitely more amusing, works about the English middle class."

Edith Oliver of the New Yorker was perplexed by certain aspects of the play. She wrote "Top Girls … is witty and original, with considerable dramatized feeling, yet somehow never got to me, and I was never certain whether she was making one point with the whole play or a lot of points in its separate segments." Later in her review, Oliver emphasized that "[d]espite my admiration of Miss Churchill's ingenuity, I was disappointed and at times puzzled—never quite certain, for example, whether the historical characters of the first scene were meant to be the prototypes of modern characters.…"

A majority of American critics commented on the uniqueness of certain aspects of Top Girls, but they were most concerned with its feminist theme and social meanings. For example, John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor called Top Girls "a theatrical oddity in which the long view of what has been happening to womankind's 'top girls' combines with a sharp look at contemporary women achievers and a compassionate glance at the plight of an underclass underachiever who will never know the meaning of room at the top. Apart from one cheap shock effect, Miss Churchill has written a thoughtful and imaginative theater piece."

Along similar lines, T. E. Kalem of Time asks in his review, "Is the future to be divided between a smart, scrambling upper class of no-holds-barred individualists and a permanent underclass of poor souls who are unfit for the survival of the fittest?" An unnamed reviewer in Variety added, "If it's about male manipulation, Top Girls also pointedly involves the conditioned mentality of the sisterhood itself, with its inherited sense of role in a masculine or at least male-dominated world. The play seems to be saying that women historically have had themselves as well as sexist pigs for enemies." John Simon of New York believes the ideas in Top Girls have universal applicability. "This is not easy theater, but funny, fiercely serious, and greatly worth thinking about. Its aporias [insoluble contradictions] are not only pertinent to women, they also concern the entire, always incomplete, human condition."

Top Girls has continued to be performed regularly over the years. Most critics believe the play has withstood the test of time, despite specific references to British prime minster Margaret Thatcher and attitudes specific to the early 1980s. Of a 1991 revival in London, Paul Taylor in The Independent argued, "What continues to distinguish Top Girls is its cool, objective manner. The scenes in the job agency are almost too cleverly efficient in the way they expose the heartlessness the women have had to assume along with their crisp power-outfits. Churchill permits you to identify with the tricky plight of these characters but she does not ask you to like them." Similarly, Alastair Macaulay of the Financial Times believes, "Both as theatre and as politics, Top Girls is exciting and irritating. The dialectic of its final scene, between the Thatcherite Marlene and her socialist sister Joyce rings true as you listen. The terms in which the sisters argue about Thatcherite politics have not dated."

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